The line between a healthy negative emotion and a disordered one is not always clear. For instance, anxiety is a normal, healthy emotion that we all experience. Anxiety disorders, however, are not. Where do we draw the line between healthy and disordered anxiety? Dr. David Myers defines a psychological disorder as being deviant (different from the norm), distressful (to self and/or others), and dysfunctional. This last point is especially important in distinguishing healthy versus unhealthy anxiety. If the anxiety is based on a real threat and motivates us to prepare effectively for that threat, then it is likely not disordered. However, if the anxiety gets in the way of us trying to solve whatever problem that initiated it (i.e. we avoid it so the problem and/or the anxiety gets worse) or it is negatively impacting other important values or goals (like our relationships with others), then it is likely dysfunctional and worthy of intervention.
Yaakov, perhaps setting the stage for his Jewish descendants throughout the millennia, experiences his share of anxiety. His last interaction with his brother Esav left Yaakov fleeing for his life. He is now about to engage with Esav again and is unsure how Esav will react. Did Esav move on and forgive or does he still want to kill Yaakov for stealing the blessings? Yaakov sends envoys with an appeasing message and finds out that Esav is coming to greet him with 400 men. When Yaakov hears this, we are told that “Yaakov was very frightened (vayira Yaakov meod) and distressed (vayeitzer lo).” The fact that Yaakov was afraid for his life is self-evident from the context. However, the fact that the verse adds that he was also distressed, opens the door for the commentators to add a host of secondary triggers that contribute to Yaakov’s anxiety.
Rashi suggests that he was “frightened” of being killed by Esav and was “distressed” that he may have to kill Esav. Even though killing Esav in self-defense would be morally justified, it does not mitigate the anxiety beforehand nor necessarily the trauma afterwards (if it would have played out that way). Others suggest that he was “frightened” for his own life, but was “distressed,” worrying about the welfare of his family or the loss of his property. Alternatively, he may have been anxious as he was uncertain of Esav’s intentions. Yes, he was “frightened” that Esav was coming to kill him, but if he knew that for sure, at least he could prepare militarily. However, it was also possible that Esav was coming in peace. Consequently, he was also reticent to show military strength, which could instigate Esav unnecessarily.
An additional layer that complicates Yaakov’s emotional experience is the fact that God previously promised him that He would protect him. If that’s the case, why was Yaakov afraid in the first place? The Talmud answers that Yaakov was afraid that his sins may have caused an annulment of God’s promise. Particularly, his lack of being able to give honor to his parents while he was away for so many years (see Chizkuni), in stark contrast to Esav’s virtue in the realm of honoring his parents, may have swayed the merits in Esav’s favor (see Bereishit Rabba 76:2). Taking a different approach, other commentators suggest that Yaakov’s “distress” was actually a direct result of being “frightened.” Since God promised him security, in his mind, he shouldn’t have been anxious (Daat Zekeinim). He was actually anxious about the fact that he was anxious!
Yet, despite being both “frightened” and “distressed,” and despite the plethora of anxiety provoking stimuli, Yaakov’s emotional experience was healthy. As Abarbanel points out, Yaakov clearly did believe in God’s promise, otherwise he would have hid and avoided going back home. He rationally trusted in God and the fact that he also felt anxious, was a normal emotional reaction. Just because we know things rationally, doesn’t mean that our anxiety will disappear. The essential question is not do we feel any anxiety, but do we act according to our goals and values, despite the anxiety?
Yaakov serves as a paradigm for how to deal with anxiety. Despite feeling anxious, he takes charge of the situation, and functionally prepares for different possibilities. He plans the diplomatic route of gifts and appeasement, he sets up his camp for fighting if necessary, and he engages in heartfelt prayer. We would do well to learn from his example when we are anxious, effectively preparing for different realistic outcomes, and praying to God for help and guidance through our challenges.